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Britain’s best places to see: Heritage graveyards and cemeteries 16

Despite their macabre nature, cemeteries and graveyards offer a wealth of incredible architecture and captivating stories. Britain holds some of the world’s oldest and most spectacular cemeteries, the final resting places of some of the history’s most influential people. Whether you’re a tombstone tourist or just morbidly curious, we’ve compiled a list of Britain’s must-see graveyards:

The Cross Bones Graveyard

photograph of graveyard gates covered in colourful ribbons and trinkets

© Garry Knight CC BY 2.0

A somewhat overlooked treasure within the wealth of historic graveyards in London. Nestled in a quiet backstreet, the large rusty iron gates are adorned with ribbons, flowers and curious totems amid a large bronze plaque with the epitaph “RIP The Outcast Dead”.

Cross Bones is a pauper’s graveyard referred to in a 1598 survey as a burial ground for ‘single women’, commonly interpreted as a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in the surrounding brothels.

These women, although permitted and regulated during their life time, were denied a Christian burial, and thus Cross Bones became their final resting place. The site is also believed to have been a plague pit by the 17th century, and was grossly overcrowded.

More than 60 percent of the skeletons found at Crossbones were those of children – likely victims of the plague or, more often than not, child prostitutes.

Grave to seek out: No graves are marked here, but in 2010 the BBC conducted a long investigation accompanied by a documentary about the lives of one of the woman excavated from the site, named “Cross Bones girl”.

It makes for a fascinating watch and read and is well worth researching if you’re interested in learning a little more about the women who are buried here.


Brookwood Cemetery

photograph of mausoleum within tree-filled cemetery

© Scott Wyle CC BY 2.0

When it opened in the mid 19th century Brookwood was the largest cemeteries in the world and, at approximately 400 acres and having around 250,000 burials, it remains the largest in all of Western Europe.

Built to ease the overflowing cemeteries of overcrowded Victorian London the cemetery was originally accessible by its own railway line and station, The London Necropolis station, which transported both coffins and passengers from Waterloo to Surrey. The line was was demolished after suffering substantial damage during World War II and today all that remains of the railway are some iron columns used to support the tracks and the entrance to Westminster Bridge House, which is the station’s original driveway.

Brookwood later became a burial site for military personnel who had died in the London district. Among the graves are the final resting places of Saxon King Edward the Martyr (who died in 978) and American-born painter John Singer Sargent (1925).

Grave to seek out: Edith Thompson (December 25 1893 – January 9 1923). Thompson was executed in 1923 for conspiring to kill her husband with her lover, Frederick Bywaters.

Her trial became a cause célèbre in British media, and almost a million members of the public signed a petition to repeal her death sentence. It is believed that she was pregnant at the time of her execution, and her executioner later committed suicide due to the guilt of killing the unborn baby.


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Bunhill Fields

photograph of cemetery filled with tombs and headstones

© James Stringer CC BY-NC 2.0

Bunhill acted as a burial ground for plague victims in the 19th century; however, it later became a favoured place for non-conformists to choose as their final resting place.

Notable names include John Bunyan (died 1688), author of The Pilgrim’s Progress; Daniel Defoe (died 1731), author of Robinson Crusoe; William Blake (died 1827), artist, poet, and mystic; Susanna Wesley (died 1742), known as the “Mother of Methodism”.

Inside the grounds lies ‘Bone Hill’, a large hill compiled of deposits of dried human bones with a small layer of topsoil covering it.

Grave to seek out: Tomb of the Unitarians Theophilus Lindsey (died 1808), Elizabeth Rayner (died 1800) and Thomas Belsham (died 1829). This tomb is wonderfully inscribed and contains three friends who all spearheaded the formation of the Unitarian church in the 18th century.


Kensal Green

photograph of cross and angel monuments in cemetery

© David Holt CC BY-SA 2.0

Kensal Green has gained notoriety for its prominence in popular culture throughout the centuries, as well as its large variety of wildlife.

Opened in 1833, it is immortalised in the lines of GK Chesterton’s poem “The Rolling English Road”, from his book The Flying Inn: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

Its gothic design has also made it a popular backdrop for several movies, including The Theatre of Blood. The site holds the graves of famous individuals such as Military Surgeon James Barry, who was discovered to be a woman on her death in 1865

Grave to seek out: Andrew Ducrow (1793–1842). Ducrow was a British circus performer often deemed the “father of British circus equestrianism” for his introduction of horses into the circus.

He was an extremely popular entertainer during his life, and founded London’s first permanent circus, ‘Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre’ in Lambeth.

Unfortunately, the Amphitheatre succumbed to fire three times. After the third time, in 1841, Ducrow collapsed from a mental breakdown, dying shortly afterwards.

He is buried in the centre avenue at Kensal Green Cemetery in one of the most desirable burial plots. His tomb is one of the largest and most decorated tombs in the cemetery and combines Pagan, Greek and Egyption decoration.

It was brightly painted in pastel hues when it was first erected, but these have faded over time.

Royal Burial Ground

photograph of large mausoleum overlooking water

© WyrdLight.com, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The burial ground for the Royal Family, The Royal Burial Ground in Berkshire was consecrated in 1928. Among the grounds is the Frogmore Mausoleum, which was ordered to be erected for Prince Albert four days after his death.

Queen Victoria, devastated by the death of her beloved husband, built the monument to be a shared resting place for them both.

Grave to seek out: Prince William of Gloucester (December 18 1941 – August 28 1972) was a grandson of King George V of the United Kingdom. William died at the age of 30 in a plane crash in front of 30,000 spectators.

Prince Charles, his cousin, had a very close relationship with him and named his son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, after him.


St Mary Magdalene Churchyard
East Ham

photograph of churchyard with headstones in foreground

© St Mary Magdalene Church, East Ham. © Marathon CC BY-SA 2.0

St Mary Magdalene Church in East Ham is the oldest Norman Church in London, built in 1137. Incredibly, it still has weekly use and a nine-and-a-half acre woodland surrounding it – one of the largest in London.

The church was closed for burials in 1947 and its disuse allowed wildlife to flourish, culminating in its opening as a formal nature reserve in 1983. The churchyard is still relatively overgrown and contains a memorial for two of the crew of the RMS titanic.

Grave to seek out: 18th century antiquarian and friend of Isaac Newton William Stukeley is buried here.

Stukeley was the first man to survey and record Stonehenge and is widely regarded as the most important of the early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology” for his habit of going out personally to examine and explore ancient sites.


Arnos Vale

Inspired by the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Arnos Vale was opened in 1839 under the reign of Queen Victoria.

The cemetery embodies a classic Greece ethos. Inside are the graves of most of Bristol’s leading Victorian citizens including Indian social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Among the grand architecture, Arnos Vale has a spectacular selection of Grade II-listed buildings, which make fascinating viewing.

Grave to seek out: Harry Blanshard Wood (June 21 1882 – August 15 1924). Wood was a decorated war hero who received the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

He is well remembered for putting himself on the front line for his troops during World War I, and his efforts are well worth researching. He died from shock after suffering bad mental health following his wartime experiences.


photograph of monuments in cemetery at sunset

© Michel Curi CC BY 2.0

Glasgow’s well-known Necropolis hosts monuments designed by major architects and sculptors of the time, including Alexander Thomson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and JT Rochead, which has given it its status as a feat of architectural brilliance.

The site attracts hundreds of visitors each year to view the diversity and intricacy of many of the tombs, which range from Parisian to Greek styles.

The Necropolis is also subject to a complex conspiracy theory which states its 37-acre landscape is a large metaphor for Freemasonry, and symbols of this secret group can be found scattered throughout the site.

Grave to seek out: Charles Tennant (May 3 1768 – October 1 1838). Tennant was a Scottish chemist and Industrialist who discovered and patented bleaching powder.

He built one of the largest and most successful chemical plants of his time and the business is still active today. Tennant is also known for his controversial liberal views and his work on Scottish social reform.

His tomb, which has a seated marble figure of him on top, is a popular attraction at the cemetery.


Nunhead Cemetery

photograph of headstones grown over with dense greenery

© Kotomi_ CC BY 2.0

Nunhead Cemetery is one of London’s least visited Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London. Consecrated in 1840 with an Anglican chapel, its first burial was of Charles Abbott, a grocer from Ipswich who died at the age of 101.

Despite its macabre nature, Nunhead Cemetery is probably one of the most beautiful in the UK, with Victorian sculpture intertwining with tranquil wilderness since its abandonment in the mid-20th century. Today, a voluntary group works hard to maintain the cemetery from the ravages of nature, but its 52-acre plot makes this a massive job.

The areas that have yet to be restored make for an eerie and visually fascinating adventure.

Grave to seek out: Calvin G Simpson (1958-1990). Simpson was an actor, most famous for his appearance in British drama The Bill in 1989.

His headstone is a favourite among visitors, bearing a large comedy and tragedy green theatre mask with the inscription “a rare actor” underneath.


Eyam Parish Church
Peak District

photograph of headstones in churchyard

© Tom Parnell (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Opened in 1665, Eyam began as a humble gathering place for the community. But the transportation of a damp linen cloth from London for a local tailor brought with it plague-carrying fleas, and sent the entire village into chaos.

In a bid to stop the plague spreading to other communities, the village decided to isolate themselves. With the community struggling to cope with the number of deaths and the mason long dead, many victims carved their own tomb stones before succumbing to the plague.

Their self-sacrifice is remembered annually and the village itself is a popular tourist attraction. Among the gravestones in this sombre site is the family of Mrs Hancock, who buried her husband and six children in a space of eight days.

Grave to seek out: Catherine Mompesson (died 1666). Catherine’s tomb is gated in the churchyard and is usually doused in flowers.

She was the wife of the village’s rector William, who cared for the village during its isolation. William begged Catherine to leave him and stay in Yorkshire so that she would survive, but she refused to leave his side.

She later succumbed to the plague in 1666.


St Pancras Old Church

photograph of rows of closely-lined headstones beneath a large tree

© Paul Hudon CC BY 2.0

St Pancras Old Church’s churchyard is a site steeped in legend. The age of the church and its yard has been debated for centuries, and the general consensus heralds it as one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating to the early 4th century and a site for prayer and meditation since 314AD.

Its churchyard houses the tombs of many notable people, including the composer Johann Christian Bach. John Soane’s self-designed tomb – now Grade-II listed – sits here too, and is cited as part of the inspiration behind the design of the iconic red telephone box by Giles Gilbert Scott.

However, what this renowned site is most famous for is The Hardy Tree. While in charge of excavating the site in the 1860’s, a young Thomas Hardy rearranged tombstones in a tight cluster around an ash tree.

Grave to seek out: Burdett Coutts Memorial. A magnificent monument which lists all the names of graves that have been lost during the redevelopment of the surrounding area.

Among them is Chevalier d’Eon, a transgender spy who successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting himself as a woman.


Iona Abbey
Isle of Iona


Iona has some of the oldest tomb stones recorded in its churchyard. Among them, the Scottish king murdered by Macbeth in 1140 is reputed to be buried here, along with 47 Scottish kings and saints.

Many of the intricately-carved tomb stones on display have beautiful Celtic designs, and the abbey has its own museum dedicated to its rich heritage. By the roadside, the church yard also has a 1,200-year-old cross, which stands exactly where it was originally erected and is very weathered.

The site is a fantastic insight into early Scottish Christianity, with spectacular views.

Grave to seek out: Ancient preserved grave slabs in the Iona Abbey Museum. Many of the oldest grave slabs have been removed and are presented in the museum to protect them from the elements; however, these are the most fantastic.

Many of them depict intricate carvings of kings and their full bodies, decorated in Celtic design. They are wonderfully unique and well worth a visit.


St Mary’s Church

close up photograph of headstones with decorative scrolls in long grass

© david_pics (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

St Mary’s Church has Norman origins and its original structure was built in 1110, making it a historical gem on its own. Its churchyard, however, is the inspiration and eventual setting for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ novel.

A quick visit to the cemetery shows why. It is set on a gradual slope with surrounding valleys and sea. The cemetery has been subject to recent controversy: the cliff side has begun to erode and slip, spilling human remains onto the pathways below.

Grave to seek out: Mr and Mrs Huntrodd. This magnificent couple have a day of the year dedicated to them.

They were born on the same day of the week, month and year (September 19th 1600), had 12 children, and died on their 80th birthdays (19th September 1680) – within five hours of each other.


Highgate Cemetery

photograph of long curving row of mausoleum doorways

© Elizabeth Ellis CC BY-SA 2.0

Highgate Cemetery in London is no doubt the most beautiful and most famous cemetery in the UK. Its overgrown, shattered ruins and maze of ivy-cloaked tombs could lead anyone to easily lose a day exploring.

Split into East and West, the cemetery is still in use today and houses memorials to Karl Marx, George Eliot and Douglas Adams on the east side. Vandalism and souvenir hunters have led to the West side being closed to the public, unless on an accompanied tour.

Tours of the West side are highly recommended, as this section contains the most impressive architectural tombs in London, including the Egyptian Avenue. The catacombs and chapels enclosed in the secretive west side are outstanding, and an absolute must-see.

Grave to seek out: Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005). A renowned pop artist, Caulfield’s work is exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery.

His headstone is a noteworthy monument, with huge laser cut letters spelling ‘D E A D’ on a large slab of granite.


Undercliffe Cemetery

photograph of monuments in a cemetery on a bright day

Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford © Tim Green (CC BY 2.0)

Founded in the mid-19th century, Undercliffe was established through necessity after Bradford experienced a population explosion which saw numbers increase from 13,000 to more than 100,000 in just 50 years. Bradford’s busy industrial contributed to both the population boost with the deluge of new jobs and opportunities, and the massive increase in deaths from poor living conditions, countless industrial accidents, and the spread of disease from already-overflowing cemeteries.

Undercliffe largely houses the remains of prominent local families, businessmen, industrialists and politicians, as well as mill workers. Given the high status of the interred residents, the monuments at Undercliffe are quite a sight to behold. It has been described as ‘one of the most striking achievements of Victorian funerary design.’

Sitting high above the city, the cemetery has spectacular views over Bradford, and is a fitting final resting place for the former residents, politicians and business owners who played such a key role in its history.

Grave to seek out: Isaac Holden (1807-1897). Holden was an influential textiles manufacturer in Bradford during the 19th century. At one time his factories were the largest wool combers in the world.

Isaac Holden developed the square motion wool-combing machine, which was patented by his colleague Samuel Lister in 1848. Following his successful manufacturing career he became a politician and philanthropist. After his death, when the large Italianate mansion he had built for his family in Oakworth in Yorkshire burned down, the land was given to the people of Oakworth and turned into a public park.


Abney Park

photograph of cemetery with monuments to the left and path to the right

Abney Park Cemetery © Kotomi_ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

One of London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries, Abney Park is situated in the grounds of a house once lived in by Dr Isaac Watts, a religious non-conformist, poet and hymn writer. This association made the cemetery popular with religious dissenters.

The cemetery was the first in Europe to be combined with an arboretum, with 2,500 labelled trees lining the perimeter in alphabetical order.

After falling into disrepair in the 1970s, Abney Park Cemetery developed a wildness to it that let the local wildlife thrive. The grounds today are left untamed as a unique patch of wilderness in London.

Grave to seek out: Frank Bostock (1866-1912). Bostock was a famed animal showman who was born into the Bostock and Wombwell dynasty – the country’s leading Menagerists. Frank set off on his own to conquer Europe and America, and became a revered tamer of wild animals (though we would surely disagree with his methods today). According to legend, it was Bostock who discovered that big cats could be kept at bay by wielding the underside of a chair. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a lion or tiger that ended Bostock’s life, but the flu, which he succumbed to in 1912 at the age of 46. A beautiful marble lion lies atop his tomb.

16 comments on “Britain’s best places to see: Heritage graveyards and cemeteries

  1. Annie on

    Best Gothic Cemetary outside London is to be found in Bradford West Yorkshire I’m surprised this is not included in the list.

  2. Esther on

    Have a look at Abney Park in Stoke Newington, an old non-Conformist cemetery. An absolute riot of Victorian funerary memorials which has been allowed to decay gently over the years, making it a bit of a Gothic wonderland. It has very wistful carved memorials of children, some of which seem to have their original paint. There are the large the tombs of the founders of the Sally Ann and a magnificent disused chapel in the middle of the cemetery. I used to go there in my lunch time and watch the wildlife and once saw a large hopping creature which came to get a bit of apple I threw down. No, not a wallaby. I think it was a jerboa or desert rat.

  3. Margaret Fiddes on

    I must echo another comment here – why is there no mention of Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford. A number of listed monuments and some enormous memorials dedicated to the industrial giants of the north – not to mention fantastic views over Bradford’s mills.

    • Richard Moss on

      Hi Margaret, these guides are ever evolving and I think you’re right – Undercliffe really needs to go in. We’ll get onto it. Thanks Richard (editor).

  4. John S Hartley on

    What’s with C19 plague burials in the first articles? Thought plague ended in London 1665 …… or have I missed something – cholera, yes & lots of other nasties in C18 & C19 but not plague, surely.

  5. Julia on

    You have missed off Norwood Cemetery – home to Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery; Elhanan Bicknell, and Thomas Griffith both of whom were patrons of JMW Turner; and artist Samuel Prout, among others.

  6. Peter on

    Bunhill Fields also contains the grave of Bayes of ‘Bayes Theorem’ -re conditional probability. If more people knew about him then for example ‘Sally Clark’ would still be alive.

  7. Jo Lambert on

    Loved this, feeling inspired but bit confused by the ‘transgender’ spy.. if he was pretending to be a she then just pretending to be a she rather than transgender and if she was a she then should be referred to as she rather than he? I had to re-read several times so may be confused but I think there’s something wrong somewhere!

  8. Lynn Porter on

    A very interesting article. Explore Arnos Vale Cemetery, and you won’t be disappointed. With Lottery funding the chapel, and crematorium have been sympathetically restored, and preservation work is ongoing throughout the grounds. My daughter got married in the chapel, which gave a beautiful, ethereal backdrop to the ceremony. Drinks and canapés were due to be held in the Crematorium after (it’s now a museum, gallery, and cafe) but as the weather was so warm, the wedding guests were inclined to wander outside and explore the grounds, G&T in hand! A wedding like no other.
    My daughter and I are now Friends of Arnos Vale, and Jessica volunteers to help maintain the grounds that are a haven for wildlife, particularly as it was neglected and overgrown for so long, and we attend some of the fascinating talks and exhibitions now held there.


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